So I was looking forward to Herring’s new show, but at the same time apprehensive. The conceit of the show is simply that Herring decided he wanted to ‘reclaim’ the Hitler moustache for comedy, giving it back to Charlie Chaplin, because for it to be associated with Hitler meant that Hitler had won a tiny victory. So he was going to grow a toothbrush moustache and see what the reaction would be.
To my mind, this was a regressive idea – Herring was one of the first of the many comedians who have recently done shows or written books about themselves trying to do impossible feats, and this seemed similar to the kind of thing he did in his earlier show The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace, except that this time he was not being driven by the total breakdown of his life that had precipitated the earlier show. I thought that at best he would be just ‘satirising racism like some kind of Rory Bremners’ (as Herring himself would put it) and at worst it would be a Danny Wallace-esque ‘look at me being wacky’ show.
And to be honest, I suspect that Herring originally saw the show that way himself – possibly as something light after the emotionally draining show he did last year. He references Hercules Terrace in the first half of the show, and the (free) programme for the show – created before he wrote the script, when he only had the concept – doesn’t touch on much of the subject matter of the show, being a mixture of old blog posts and bits about his podcast with Andrew Collins.
The first half of the show, in fact, seems to fit that kind of show rather well. It’s loosely themed around Hitler and racism, and has some great lines on the subject (saying that if only everyone saw themselves as racists did, there’d be no more wars – India and Pakistan would say “Why are we fighting? I’m a Paki, you’re a Paki!”) it goes off on tangents about subjects like Madeline McCann, Michael Jackson, and just funny lines – “I don’t know the meaning of the word hubris. Which is unfortunate, as I’m entering a ‘define the meaning of the word hubris’ contest, straight after the show. I think I’ll win anyway, though.”
It was funny, and contained a lot of strong material, but was seemingly unfocused and more about getting individual laughs than having a strong through-line. That’s often the case with Herring’s shows though – his first halves often seem flabby, but often the less-impressive stuff from the first half is setting things up for very delayed punchlines later on, and his second halves are usually phenomenal.
In the case of this show, there was a natural break, as Herring had planned to wear the moustache for two periods – a short trial one, after which he shaved for some family commitments, followed by a longer one for the show’s run at Edinburgh and subsequent tour.
The day he shaved down to the moustache the second time was the day the results of the European elections were announced, and this triggers a total change of tone in the second half, which starts with him almost screaming at the audience “This was all your fault. Statistically, at least half of you didn’t vote, because oh dear boo hoo the politicians bought duck moats so they’re all the same. Really? They’re all exactly the same? There are TWENTY FUCKING NAMES ON THAT PAPER and there’s not ONE of them you’d prefer to the Nazis? You don’t think ‘maybe we should give the Greens a chance’? It’s YOUR fault the BNP got in YOU UTTER FUCKING CUNTS! And no, I’m not joking.” Before going on to talk about those who fought in the Spanish CIvil War for democracy and freedom, and comparing them to those who can’t even be bothered to walk to their local primary school.
As you can imagine, I was very much in agreement with this routine, given that this was almost word for word what I wrote on the day the results were announced, and I clapped, very loudly, for what felt like minutes (but was probably just seconds) on my own before a handful of others joined in. Herring went on to demolish people who spoil their ballot paper, as well as the idea of no-platforming these absurd, disgusting individuals.
And from this (rather preachy, but by God *SOMEONE* needs to be saying this stuff, without any caveats about ‘well, you can understand them…’) the second half of the show was hilariously funny (at times I laughed so much my vision went blurry through choking) and managed to take some of the formally clever stuff he’d done in earlier shows and make it about something more than just being itself. One routine, where he argues with himself, is very similar to the end of Menage A Un (and has a punchline from Someone Likes Yoghurt), but it takes on added resonance as he’s comparing his own use of the word ‘Paki’ (quoted earlier) to Carol Thatcher referring to a black man as a ‘golliwog’, and trying to work out how one can be justified and the other can’t, deconstructing the show and the argument itself.
The show turns into one of the all too few truly robust defences of liberal democracy (lower-case – Herring supports the Greens rather than us, but nobody’s perfect) I’ve heard recently that don’t come with either mealy-mouthed caveats or with threats to bomb anyone who isn’t as tolerant as us. One would *hope* that in 2009 basic ideas like democracy being better than fascism and racism being bad wouldn’t *need* defending, but unfortunately they do, and Herring does as good a job as could be hoped for.
And at the end he gives Chaplin the credit he’s due, for sticking his neck out and making The Great DIctator (and in the process ties in the Michael Jackson material by saying of Chaplin “Yes, he was a bit of a paedophile, but he was talented and he’s dead, so it doesn’t matter, as we’ve recently learned”) by reading out a chunk of Chaplin’s big speech from that film. I’ve never been a huge fan of Chaplin (rating him far below the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy and Buster Keaton – I regard him as the Woody Allen of pre-war cinema, in many ways), but that speech still resonates today.
This may not be Herring’s funniest show (I think that’s still Menage A Un) but it’s probably his best, and certainly his most necessary. Go and see it if you can, and if not buy the DVD when it comes out next year (Herring’s shows get released by Go Faster Stripe usually just after he starts touring the next show – his last one, The Headmaster’s Son, should be out soon). It’s well worth it.